It is widely known that to whom more is given, more is expected of them. The United States is one of the world’s strongest economies. It has a strong army and an impressive income per capita. In fact, it is considered as a superpower.
But with the glory comes responsibility. Since she is not an island by herself, it is imperative that there be interaction between her and the international community. How are these interactions to take place if not all parties are on level ground. Is the United States to play the role of big brother to developing countries? And if so, to what point should she meddle in the affairs of these countries? They are difficult questions to answer that require serious deliberation.
It is interesting to note the use of the word ‘Colossus’ in the title of Niall Ferguson’s book: ‘Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire’. A colossus is something that one finds large and powerful. It is a term which inspires a feeling of awe. Coupled with the word empire, a word that means a singular authority over a group of nations or territory, it leaves one slightly unsettled.
Ferguson draws many parallels between the U.S as an ‘empire’ and other empires of the past. Like the Chinese empire during the Ming dynasty, she has been able to unite peoples over a vast geographical area, giving them a feel of singularity of purpose: and like the Egyptians of old, she has erected edifices and structures that are manifest of her presence (pg. 14).
America is in continuous denial of its being called an empire. Though Ferguson claims it has the markings of one. Be it an empire or not, it still plays a key role in the international community.
One of the arenas in which the United States plays a major role is the attempt at resolving internal conflicts within other countries. She has used military intervention in several instances. For example; she sent her troops to topple Slobodan Milosevic in Servia. It was in a bid to rid a nation off a despotic leader. But the bloodshed that came as a result of this effort totally negates the benefits. By the time the troops left, there was in their wake thousands of bodies, casualties of their mission. This happens to be the case with most of America’s attempts at intervention. Another example is Saddam’s Iraq.
The United States may claim that these interventions are sometimes necessary and even beneficial, citing the examples of Germany and Japan at the end of the Second World War. What they fail to say is that these interventions went on for extended periods of time; as long as seven years, and with very large deployment of troops.
It is apparent that for the majority of cases, to date, no good has come of America’s intervention in the affairs of other countries. It seems that the policies applied run to the theme of ‘we’ll help you as long as we help ourselves somewhere along the way.’ There is no genuine altruism that comes out. There are very few, if any, countries who can stand up to truthfully thank the States for rescuing them from themselves.
There are financial institutions that were specifically set up to give aid to developing countries and over which the U.S has great influence. These are institutions such as the World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund). But in Ferguson’s own words, they have failed at what they set out to do. This is what he has to say of the effort: the experiment with political independence, especially in Africa, has been a disaster for most poor countries. Life expectancy in Africa has been declining and now stands at just forty-seven years. This is despite aid, loans and programs of debt forgiveness. Only two sub-Saharan countries out of forty-six, Botswana and Mauritius, have bucked the trend of economic failure (pg .214).
Though he would like to lay the blame on the countries that receive the financial aid, the question still remains whether there is a deficiency in the policies for the disbursement of these funds since they seem not to be of assistance. It is coming out that these policies should be revised to make them more effective.
It seems, according to Ferguson, that the United Nations is more of a tool for the implementation of policies that are vetted for by the United States. He implies that though the U.N is meant to be a neutral body, there is leniency towards what the States wants to be done, whether this is the desire of all other parties involved. He has this to say: when it does legitimize American policy, it is positively useful. When it does not, on the other hand, on the other hand, it is more than an irritant’ (pg.135). It is vital that bodies such as the U.N which are considered to blanket almost all the nations on earth not be seen as being inclined towards on particular nation since this leads to lack of trust in its ability to deliver.
There has been an alarming rise in terrorist attacks world over with the most horrific and memorable one being the bombing of the World Trade Center on the 11th of September 2007. There were many interpretations made over this attack, some seeing it as a statement by the terrorist in resistance to American dominance. But what came out most clearly is a feeling of strong resentment towards the Bush administration. Of this, Ferguson says ‘history failed to turn around’ (pg 107).
Ferguson attributes this to the shift in geographical focus of the American ‘empire’ to the Middle East. He says ‘gradually, however, the Middle East came to be the hub around which American strategy turned; because of Israel, because of oil, because of terrorism’ (pg.131). Could this have been the real reason behind the extreme reaction to Iraq?
If the U.S begins to think of itself as an empire, it will be contradicting its own stand on democracy. She advocates for human freedom at all levels: freedom of speech, freedom of association and thought, freedom of movement and religious practices. So, on what grounds would she strike out to tell another nation how to run their show?
If the United States is as liberal an empire as Ferguson makes it out to be, why are its policies on trade still unfavorable to third world countries? The World Trade Organization, ethic was established to protect the young economies of developing countries has turned out to be the wolf in sheep’s clothing since its legislations on trade actually stifle them. There are tariffs exerted and subsidies that revert whatever positive impact of global trade that might have been experienced by developing countries.
***Before America begins to focus on its external responsibilities and deal with problems closer to home. For example the issue of Medicare and the accessibility of healthcare services to all its citizens.
Ferguson has done an apt job in identifying the challenges that face the U.S as a state and in carrying out its role as an ‘empire’. He says there are three major problems that she has to tackle. One is that of what he terms as ‘manpower deficit’. He defines this as the representation by the quantity of military personnel and the propensity of Americans to preference to run Wall Street firms over colonies and governments (pg. 299). This is that Americans show a singularity of interest in running their personal interest and what affect their lives directly to the point of neglecting all other things as long as ‘somebody’ is in charge.
Another problem is that of the economic deficit. He sites this as the U.S over depending on foreign investment and the lack of timely resolution to internal financial problems (pg. 289)
The third deficit according to Ferguson is what he refers to as ‘attention deficit’. It is a direct comparison between how the U.S behaves and how a child with attention deficit disorder would. He says that though the States is good at making promises, she is not good at follow through. It is represented by the lack of will on the part of the Americans to follow through with plans and occupations and the tendency to get jittery after even the slightest loss of life. They are unwilling to die and unwilling to commit to long-term plans.
Amsden says that the biggest characteristic that should change in America’s role in international affairs is her approach. Instead of strong-arming her way into a nation’s affairs, moving in with tailor made policies; they should encourage open and genuine dialogue. This way, the affected nation comes up with their own solutions to their own problems that they understand best. The United States should plat the role of watchdog to see that these solutions are actually put into play (pg. 39).
According to Amsden, the States could also play a role in combating poverty in third world countries. In Asia alone, more than two thirds of that populous continent lives in abject poverty without such basic facilities as safe drinking water and proper sewage disposal. A direct link to poverty is a proportional occurrence of curable diseases such as cholera and typhoid, which accounts for an infant mortality rate that is ten to twenty times higher in the slums in developing countries than in the middle and upper class sectors. (pg137)Poverty eradication can be tackled through debt relief programs, where countries with extremely great external debt are pardoned.
To a point therefore, I disagree with Ferguson’s idea of America becoming a liberal empire, not because the concept is unworkable but because the cons far much outweigh the cons. first and foremost because this would be a breach in the rights of individuals as outlined in the United Nations manifesto. Again her policies are deeply flawed and tend to be more self centered and require a great deal of revision.
There could be several advantages to the United States declaring itself a ‘liberal’ empire but several things have to come into play first. America has to resolve her own internal problems, be they issues on healthcare, a stagnated economy, national security and the discrepancy between the poor and rich. With the proper guidelines, everybody would stand to benefit. If amerce was to actually put in plat foreign policies that support free and fair global trade with bilateral agreements that are favorable to all parties, there would be reason to celebrate.
Amsden Alice. H (2007) Escape From Empire: The Developing World’s Journey Through Hell . New York. MIT Press
Ferguson Niall (2005) Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire London. Penguin books